Dust is a collection of microscopic particles of material


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Earth Science, Geology, Meteorology, Geography, Physical Geography

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Morgan Stanley

Dust is a collection of microscopic particles of material. Dust is heavy enough to see and light enough to be carried by the wind.

Dust can be made up of pollen, bacteria, smoke, ash, salt crystals from the ocean, and small bits of dirt or rock, including sand. Dust can also contain tiny fragments of human and animal skin cells, pollution, and hair.

When its windy outside, you can see dust particles blowing through the atmosphere. Large amounts of dust that are carried through the atmosphere by strong winds are called dust storms. Dust storms mostly occur in dry, open areas.

The Sahara Desert in Africa has many dust storms. Most Sahara dust is made of sand. Dust storms in the Sahara Desert can blow a wall of dust as high as one mile off the ground. Dust storms can make it very difficult to see and breathe.

In 1983, a dust storm covered the city of Melbourne, Australia. The deserts of Australia were experiencing drought, so sand and soil were loose. The dry conditions allowed about 50,000 tons of material to erode as dust. Melbourne had more than 1,000 tons of dust dumped on it. The dust caused so much damage that it took years of work and millions of dollars to repair.

Individual particles of dust are a major part of cloud condensation nuclei (CCN). Cloud condensation nuclei are made up of tiny pieces of solid material in clouds. CCN could be a dust storm drifting through a cloud, or an updraft with dust particles in it. Water vapor in the clouds condenses, or turns to liquid, around CCN. Invisible dust is often at the center of every raindrop.

In some areas, windblown dust settles into deposits called loess. Loess is a type of sediment that is loose and fragmented. It can be many meters deep. Loess often develops into fertile soil for agriculture because it retains water, allows many different plants to take root, and has abundant nutrients.

Fast Fact

Dust Bowl
The Great Plains of the United States and Canada experienced severe drought during the 1930s. This drought came after years of agricultural development that did not include crop rotation. Very few plants anchored the soil. Crops were difficult to plant and, often, impossible to harvest. Dust storms were so strong, and so frequent, the entire area was called the Dust Bowl.

Dust Bowl storms could reduce visibility to a few feet, and had names like "Black Blizzards." Millions of farmers, especially those in the U.S. states of Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas, lost their land when they were unable to harvest any crops. These victims of the Dust Bowl migrated to places like California and Florida, where agricultural land was less affected by the dust storms and drought.

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Kim Rutledge
Melissa McDaniel
Santani Teng
Hilary Hall
Tara Ramroop
Erin Sprout
Jeff Hunt
Diane Boudreau
Hilary Costa
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society
Tim Gunther
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
Educator Reviewer
Nancy Wynne
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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